|Pirkei Avot: The Voice of Torah 5:9|
|Written by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger|
The Mishnah in Avot (5:9) tells us that there are seven habits of a golem (an unshaped, unrefined lump of a person) and seven of a wise man. The seven traits found in a wise man are listed:
1) He does not make declarations before one greater than he in wisdom or in age.
2) He does not interrupt the words of his fellow.
3) He does not answer hastily.
4) He asks relevant questions and thereby enables accurate and relevant answers.
5) He discusses first things first and last things last.
6) About something he has not heard he says, “I have not heard”.
7) He acknowledges truth.
The Mishnah concludes, “V’chilufeihen b’golem” – the reverse of the above characterize a golem.
This Mishnah is extremely problematic. How can it tell us that we must discuss first things first and last things last, when in the very same Mishnah it discusses the traits of a wise man (the second thing listed) before the traits of a golem (the first thing mentioned)?
Indeed, why does the Mishnah need to spell out “first things first and last things last”? If first things are first, isn’t it axiomatic that last things are last?
What is the link of these habits to the number 7?
Let us consider some of these habits. We are told that a wise person does not make declarations before one who is greater than he in wisdom or in years. Greater in wisdom, we can readily understand. But why greater in years? If the younger one is wiser, why should he not speak up, particularly if he hears the older person saying something he knows to be unwise or untrue?
We have to remember one thing. Asking irrelevant questions, as an example, separates a wise man from a golem. What this has to mean is that the golem might lack none of the wise man’s knowledge. It is just that because he fails in these seven traits, his knowledge does not render him a wise person? Why is that?
What the Mishnah must be saying is that wisdom is not synonymous with knowledge. Knowledge represents facts and information, but to be a chacham, one must recognize that this knowledge must have a purpose greater than knowledge alone in order to have a value.
All seven habits of the wise person suggest he understands this idea. Why does he not speak up before an older person when he hears him recite a fact he knows not to be true? He does not speak before an older person because perhaps the older person is aware of a reason NOT to provide a factual answer. Correct facts are not the defining factor of wisdom. Unless he is the one with the responsibility to provide the answer, the chacham is wiser to let others speak, since offering knowledge that confounds a greater purpose can be counterproductive rather than helpful.
Why not interrupt the words of a fellow? What if you already know he is wrong? Because his being wrong is not sufficient to justify producing better information. A Talmid Chacham brings peace to the world, says the Braisa. Perhaps the cause of “better information” might not be furthered by your waiting until your friend finishes, but perhaps wisdom’s greater agenda, which includes finding something – maybe in his closing words – that you can agree with him on and make him feel good before disputing him on his basic facts, can.
Why not answer hastily, even if you clearly know the answer? To give yourself a chance to determine if you SHOULD reveal the answer, even if you know it. What if the questioner might cause harm if given this knowledge? A chacham allows himself to consider possibilities that extend beyond the facts and information alone.
Asking relevant questions refers to a Gemara. The speaker there said, “Do not ask Rebbe questions in one tractate when he is involved in studying another.” Is this because Rebbe might not know the other tractate? Not likely. Rather, it is because questions about the other tractate will result in factual answers. Questions about the tractate he is currently studying will yield answers that include his freshly mined insights. The wise person knows that these insights are as valuable to the process of gathering wisdom as is the collecting of facts and information.
The final habits can also be shown to reflect this idea that a greater purpose than just facts and information is at stake when one is engaging chochmah.
With this, we can answer our first and most problematic question. How can a Mishnah that tells me to discuss first things first and last things last itself discuss last things first? For that, we need to look at what the Mishnah says describes a golem. “V’chilufeihen b’golem” – the golem does the reverse of what the chacham does.
What is the reverse of “first things first and last things last”?
You might think the reverse is “first things last and last things first”. This is not so. The reverse of “first things first and last things last” is “last things last and first things first”. What this means is that a golem will follow prescribed order to a fault. If a “last thing” presents itself for relevant discussion, he will say, “No – I cannot discuss this now. Last things must be discussed last.” This is not the middah of the chacham. He discusses last things last only after having discussed first things first (in other words, his habit should be read, if first things need to be discussed first, he discusses them in order beginning there). But since even something like prescribed order has a greater purpose, such as clarity for example, if he determines that handling the latter example first yields greater clarity, such as in our Mishnah, he will not hesitate to do so. He does not stiffly say, last must be last, as would the golem.
Now we can explain the connection of this Mishnah and its topic to the number 7. The number 7 is associated with the Divine scheme of the days of the week. Six days of work without a Shabbat would make us draw the mistaken conclusion that work is its own justification. Shabbat – Day 7 – comes to make us understand that the work of all the other six days has a purpose which justifies its existence. In a similar way, the seven habits of the wise man allow us to recognize that facts and information alone are not self-justifying. Only when they can be shown to serve a higher purpose can they qualify as true wisdom.